La Haine du Théâtre

I spent three very enjoyable days at the Sorbonne last week at a conference held as part of the Haine du théâtre (The Hatred of the Theatre) project. I was going to write up my thoughts immediately afterwards, but than came down with some horrible digestive disease, hence this delayed and probably less accurate account.

Summing up three days and over thirty papers isn’t really possible. So I’ll divide this post into three sections. First, a passage on some of the most interesting points I heard over the course of the event. Second, a few observations of my own about theatre-hating. Third, a general conclusion about speaking and listening at conferences.

First, some striking arguments. The opening paper on Friday morning started with Guillaume Navraud’s account of how antitheatrical sentiment developed from Plato to the Church Fathers. This talk was admirably clear, and demonstrated two particularly striking transformations: from an antitheatrical emphasis on madness to an emphasis on feminisation; and from the possession of a pagan daimon to that of Christian demons. Such analysis was capped with an astute observation from François Lecercle about how the way Christian theatre-haters turned so readily to Plato (a pagan, after all) was testament to the success of neoplatonic christianisation of the Greek philosopher.

A clear paper, with good discussion, made for a good start to the conference. As the days went by, other moments stood out for similar reasons. I’ll give a woefully inadequate sentence to each.

  • Clotilde Thouret‘s analysis of how English pro-theatre writers constructed the figure of the “theatre-hater” provided an important reflection on what was meant by ‘hatred of the theatre’.
  • Ellen Mackay pointed out a fascinating paradox whereby antitheatre accused the stage of both doing nothing and of being actively pernicious, thus occluding the idea that theatre may simply be a means of recreation and respite.
  • Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin spoke well on the connection between control of the stage and control of the English language in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England.
  • Marie-Thérèse Mourey, a rare speaker on German antitheatre, argued that, in her area, a cyclical approach to history was often antitheatrical (‘we are reliving Roman decadence’) and a liner approach pro-theatrical (‘we have purified our stage’).
  • Larry Norman‘s paper on Jean Terrasson revealed how much creativity anti-theatrical resistance generated in terms of rewriting plays.
  • Finally, a person whose name I didn’t note, made the excellent point that it sometimes seems as if theatre-haters and theatre-lovers were both using the same words to speak a different language.

This is only a short summary, but should give an idea of the range of material covered at the conference, as well – of course – as my own particular biases: I have a marked preference, it would seem, for the ‘big picture’ kind of argument.

Now for my second topic, my own brief thoughts about theatre-hating. These are largely a rehash of an article I wrote entitled ‘The Anti-Performance Prejudice of Shakespeare’s Eighteenth-Century Editors’, due to be published in RECTR next year. Above all, I’m interested in how antitheatre distinguishes (or does not distinguish) between page and stage. For instance, much of what was discussed at this even would more rightly be called ‘anti-performance’: it was rare to find discussion of a playtext’s inherent perniciousness, while the dangers of live spectacle were the bread and butter of many speakers. On top of this, I wonder if the hatred of the theatre will by nature focus more on actors than on playwrights (to the extent that they can be separated, of course). This is less solid ground, but something I’d like to pursue: performers are certainly in more immediate contact with a potentially hostile public, even if the strongest defences of the theatre are often made by dramatists.

Of course, behind this observation about how we tended to focus on performed rather than printed theatre, there is the larger question of just what is meant by “hatred of the theatre”. None of the papers really got to grips with this directly, although Thouret’s observation that the figure of the theatre-hater was in part a construct of pro-theatre writers was an important contribution. Thankfully, there is much more about what the organisers mean by “hatred of the theatre” on their website (in their ‘Programme scientifique’ PDF at the bottom of the page, in French), where they are careful to point out that the phenomenon does not have one form but many, that it is always deeply connected to its context, and yet is also able to reach beyond the immediate causes of its appearance.

This is all good stuff, but I was wondering if there was a place of one of my favourite ideas from Jonas Barish’s The Antitheatrical Prejudice (1985) here: that hatred of the theatre, obsessive, desperate, passionate, can sometimes resemble love of the theatre, since it binds writer and stage together so intimately.

That point of Barish’s makes for a bridge to my conclusion, which is about the experience of spending three days listening to established academics discuss antitheatre. I couldn’t help but wonder, especially after hearing some papers which failed to capture my interest, whether there wasn’t something fundamentally anti-theatrical about what we were doing in the safety of the Sorbonne’s Maison de la Recherche. Only at rare moments did a speaker succeed in conveying why the theatre might merit something so emotionally powerful as hatred, yet I could easily imagine an actor sitting in our ranks and wondering whether we academics – in our studied, intellectual analysis of theatre and antitheatre – were not doing a different, more insidious kind of disservice to our subject. Can you speak about the stage well without being conscious of emotion? Can you deliver a paper on performance and not be, in some way, yourself a performer?

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